‘Chappaquiddick’ review: a spellbinding spin on real-life spin doctoring

As you climb up the mountain that houses power in ascending proportion to its height, there comes a point when there’s something that becomes lesser and lesser in abundance and easily dispensable: integrity. Beyond the base camp of an established name and delirious following, this trait is an optional monkey on your back — you can choose to carry it, listen to its incessant guiding chatter and act accordingly, or simply chuck it down a precipitous, irredeemable ravine and do what you want to. 

Directed by John Curran and written by Taylor Allen and Andrew LoganChappaquiddick recounts a week in the life of Senator Ted Kennedy (Jason Clarke) when he’s forced to carry that same burden, and what he does with it. Based on real-life incidents, the movie carries the ominous tone of a thriller, and yet also serves as a time-bubble to traverse how, 50 years after that incident and its handling, our political leaders seem to have gotten better. In ridding themselves of the responsibility to be accountable for the manner of wielding their authority. 

Ed Helms is the movie’s moral compass.

Director Curran superimposes the breathless events leading to the successful American lunar landing onto the Chappaquiddick case, as both play out in parallel, one soft-landing to hoist the JFK legacy, the other hard-landing to almost hoist the Kennedy name on its own petard. On the night of July 18, 1969, a party’s on at Chappaquiddick island to honor the Boiler Room girls — a six-woman group that drove the strategy for Bobby Kennedy’s presidential campaign that was mortally cut by his assassination in 1968 — and Ted, the only surviving Kennedy offspring, is struggling with the loss, unsure of his own political credentials and presidential bid in 1972. It’s a given that the Boiler Room girls will step in to shill for Ted as well, and he has the indomitable family troubleshooter and cousin Joe Gargan (Ed Helms) and the United States Attorney for the District of Massachusetts Paul Markham (Jim Gaffigan) to steer him through the ups and downs to achieve that Kennedy dream and reclaim their White House legacy. That night, things change forever for Ted, but not as drastically as for one of the Boiler Room girls, Mary Jo Kopechne (Kate Mara) and her family. Late that night, Ted and Mary leave the party, and Ted, in an agitated state, drives the car off the Dike Bridge into a pond. 

Kate Mara and Jason Clarke: it happened one night.

What happened between the drive, during, a place where Ted and Mary parked and conversed, and what they spoke about is in the realms of speculation, and director Curran keeps that bit of the story foggy and steeped in mystery, cutting to that conversation right until the very end. Why Ted acted the way he did that flipped the car into the water that night isn’t what the movie aims to answer. It’s how he acted post the accident and Mary Jo’s death is what it stuns you with. As legal complications loom their inevitable shadow on Ted, he turns to his paralytic father Joseph (Bruce Dern, fantastic) for advice. That that guidance comes dripping with such a rasp of self-preservation is what’s horrifying, but for the seemingly compunctious Ted, it’s a quick and convenient pivot to weasel his way out of a sticky situation. Even as Joe tries hard to be Ted’s moral compass, Paul swivels on the fence, and an army of Kennedy supporters and manipulators, including Ted Sorensen and Robert McNamara (Taylor Nichols and Clancy Brown, both very good) steamroll the by-the-now-obviously at sea Ted to salvage the situation and the Kennedy name.

Bruce Dern cares about an alibi. Only that.

Aided by John Goldsmith’s evocative production design (note the curtain design in Ted’s room that prints to his passion), Maryse Alberti’s time-machine like cinematography, Keith Fraase’s spatially melting editing, and Garth Stevenson’s atmospheric score, the movie’s uplifted by its cast. Ed Helms superbly gets in his conflicted act across, as does Jim Gaffigan his character’s survival instincts. Kate Mara, in her small, ill-fated role, conveys a humane and kind empathy, that touches and yet mystifies. And Jason Clarke is tops as Ted Kennedy. His act (including an accent that’s completely alien for the Australian actor) is the highlight, a fleeting puzzle of right and wrong, the struggle for validation becoming the means to a thin-iced moral plug. 

Jason Clarke asserts his personality to Taylor Nichols.

Chappaquiddick works as a moral-and-legal-tussle thriller, but what’s unsettling about it is what it crystallizes about our present news-and-political cycles for every death, suicide, rape, disingenuous pandemic, religious, and race guidance, and blood-curdling tragedy that evaporates the personal trauma and grief of the victims and their families, leaving behind a residue of dark manipulation and chicanery. That less-connected victims don’t get a second chance, while their perpetrators flourish and earn sobriquets for themselves cuts like a knife — deep and painful. Neil Armstrong’s step may have been a small one for him and a giant one for mankind, but Ted Kennedy, close to the top of that power peak, took giant steps that left Mary Jo’s family in a state of permanent eclipse.

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Chappaquiddick is rated U/A (Parental Guidance for children below the age of 12 years) thematic material, disturbing images, and some strong language.
Director John Curran Time 1h 46min
Writers Taylor Allen, Andrew Logan
Stars Jason Clarke, Ed Helms, Kate Mara, Bruce Dern
Genres Drama, History, Thriller

Watch the trailer of Chappaquiddick here.